Six Lessons From Judging Harvard's Business Plan Competition

Harvard's Business Plan Contest—an annual event since 1997—has spawned hundreds of business plans. Winners and non-winners alike have gone on to implement their plans and start successful enterprises. The contest offers prizes totaling over $170,000 to the winners and runners-up.

Many people are aware of Harvard entrepreneurial successes such as Tom Stemberg of Staples and Michael Bloomberg. The purpose of the contest was to inspire the next generation of Harvard Business School entrepreneurs.

I was honored to be asked to serve as a judge for this years' contest. Joining me as a judge were some of the country's leading investors, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and thought leaders.

After each business plan presentation, the students received feedback from the judges. The insights of my fellow judges are worth repeating and are relevant to both new and mature companies.

1.Simplify your concept and what you want to communicate. The judges come from a variety of backgrounds and level of comfort with various industries and technologies. Yet, many of the entrepreneurs spoke in a language that only few could understand. They were simply too close to their product or service and too emotionally attached to it to understand what it is like not to be an expert. This is common sense but so many executives fail to do this.

2.Don't fall in love with your demo. One company spent far too much of their precious time in front of the judges giving a demo of the product and going into great detail about the product features. The demo did validate to the judges that the product was real but they were turned off and confused by too much information.

3.Pick markets with similar needs and characteristics. One company wanted to hedge its bets and sell to both hospitals and fast food restaurants. While market diversification can be a good idea, selling to these industries requires two different sales models and approaches. This can easily swamp a small start-up. The judges recommended that they focus on one market first.

4.Test your product with customers. Once again, this is common sense but few of the contest participants based their plans on customer feedback. The ones that did clearly stood out from the crowd. Mature companies fail to do this as well.

5.Use care in picking the early users. Your early adopters will set the tone for your Go to Market Strategy. The wrong ones can eat up a lot of resources and do little to accelerate market penetration.

6.Show passion. One of the best presentations was from a young CEO who clearly loved her product and her company. Her enthusiasm was contagious. If this is obvious advice, then why did she stand out in such a positive way?

Of the 68 teams entered, five finalists were chosen. They were all outstanding young companies and stood out because they followed these rules. Their presentations were crisp, passionate and easy to follow. They used lots of pictures and visuals and limited the number of words on a slide. They clearly articulated what problem they solved. They were models for how to present a business case.

These are great lessons for anyone selling a business idea whether you are part of a team at a Fortune 500 company seeking management approval or a start-up seeking investor funds.

Photo credit:

Evgenia Eliseeva

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  • J. Presley

    Good article and insight. We have worked with numerous entrepreneurs to create business plan and echo many of the same sentiments the Harvard judges do.
    Best of luck to everyone.

  • Leonora Reed

    Having recently judged entrants for the Marketing Academy, Neil Baron’s Fast Company article: Six Lessons From Judging Harvard's Business Plan Competition caught my eye and got me thinking about their differences — and similarities.

    At first glance, comparing The Marketing Academy and Harvard Business School may be as relevant as comparing ‘the cow and the longjohns’ (as Romanians say: vaca şi izmenele.)

    The Marketing Academy, just in its second year, provides a forum for industry leaders, marketing gurus and entrepreneurs to inspire, develop and coach future marketing leaders; the Harvard Business Plan Competition, now in its 12th year, provides the equivalent to the next generation of Harvard Business School entrepreneurs.

    Unsurprisingly, the judges and judging criteria for both competitions are much the same. Both groups of judges are leaders and entrepreneurs from a spectrum of industries. Neil’s and my fellow judges were impressed by the same qualities across the board: clarity and passion. These also happen to be the five key qualities of what I define as Real Ambition:

    1) Noble intentions: Real Ambition must serve an overarching goodness. It must be of benefit to all constituencies both in and outside of the organization.

    2) Clear intent: Real Ambition is not a destination or a ‘hoped for’ goal. It is your expression of a steely confidence in what is to come. It makes it clear that almost is not good enough and half measures are no measures at all.

    3) Seemingly impossible: Real Ambition is not about increments, or percentage points. It’s about a great leap to a completely new state of being and, most important, a positive air of certainty that it can be done.

    4) Catalytic core: Real Ambition requires action, and the catalyst for that action by its very essence, causes change and mobilization. It should motivate, stir, inspire and galvanize.

    5) Simple human language: Real Ambition must be understandable from the grassroots foundations to the heights of the boardroom. Its language that it can reach the hearts of everyone, at every level.

    The exceptional candidates were also able to align Real Ambition with storytelling — which is first and foremost about desire — it’s about a journey toward the attainment of desire. We all share desires, so the recounting of an exciting journey toward their attainment is something that everyone can enthusiastically relate to.

    As Neil says of the competition standouts, “Their presentations were crisp, passionate and easy to follow...” Valuable advice for all of us — at whatever stage of our career we may be.

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